Ever since it was released online, a week in advance of being available via print on May 30th, much has been made of writer Jeffrey Toobin’s New Yorker magazine article detailing the far too honest comments of New York Mets’ owner Fred Wilpon about the stars of his own struggling team.
The article begins with Wilpon, a Brooklyn native and former high school teammate of Sandy Koufax who grew up as a diehard Brooklyn Dodger fan, stubbornly ignoring architects and imparting his own vision for an Ebbets Field-esque rotunda as the main entrance to what is now the Mets’ new home of Citi Field.
A little later in the article, Toobin writes:
“All the Dodger stuff—that was an error of judgment on my part,” Wilpon told me…
In the past two years, the Dodger problem at Citi Field has largely been addressed. The team added a Mets Hall of Fame, just off the rotunda, and plenty of banners and photographs of the Mets’ storied and eccentric existence are now spread around the ballpark
It’s interesting that Toobin chose the words, “The Dodger problem at Citi Field” because although Wilpon corrected the issue Toobin was describing (albeit reactively, only after receiving a lot of criticism, rather than proactively doing things right the first time), that “Dodger problem at Citi Field” can be seen as a very fitting metaphor for Wilpon and his Mets.
Ironically, it’s Wilpon’s former favorite franchise, now in Los Angeles, which began to similarly fall on hard times financially (resulting from Los Angeles Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt’s divorce) at about the same time Wilpon and the Mets became victims of what many now jokingly call a “Wilpon-zi” scheme.
(That too, is ironic, that a man named Bernie Madoff literally “made off” with Wilpon’s money, as is the future of team run by a man named McCourt possibly being decided in court next month).
If it weren’t all so sad, it would be comical.
But, let’s back up for a moment, to the beginning of the Toobin article again and bring that to the present day.
There was Wilpon, with a chance to make a statement in the post-Shea Stadium era and create whatever he wanted on the grounds of the former Shea Stadium parking lot to thrust the Mets into a new age that would excite the Met fanbase for years, perhaps decades, to come.
Wilpon’s response? Turning off Met fans by completely ignoring their team’s history and unveiling a tribute to his first baseball love, the Brooklyn Dodgers – which other than supplying the blue for the Mets’ team colors, have nothing to do with Wilpon’s current franchise, which he’s been a part of running since 1980 (five years before Wilpon’s first investment with Madoff).
And, later on, there was Wilpon again, with a chance to build upon the Mets’ success of their 2006 National League Championship Series appearance (even though they probably should have beaten the underdog St. Louis Cardinals and were likely good enough to beat the Detroit Tigers in had they reached the World Series that year).
But, each of the next two years, the Mets would go on to make major league baseball history by blowing the largest consecutive September leads, each to hated division rival Philadelphia, while missing the playoffs.
And yet, even after that, Wilpon remained loyal to a fault, keeping failed Mets’ general manager Omar Minaya aboard for too long, despite several poor player personnel moves and ill-fated public relations dealings by Minaya that continued to set the Mets back as a team while damaging their image among fans and the media.
While Wilpon allowed Minaya to keep ruining the Mets’ roster, he also let Minaya embarrass the franchise through such gems as flying former manager Willie Randolph out on a west coast road trip just to unprofessionally fire Randolph at 3:12 am ET, and acting too slowly to fire ex-Vice President of Player Development Tony Bernazard after Bernazard removed his shirt and challenged Met minor league players to a fight in the clubhouse. And then, there was Minaya repeatedly bungling and stammering his way through press conferences, including Minaya’s awkward public accusation of New York Daily News reporter Adam Rubin supposedly angling for a job with the Mets after Rubin reported the incident about Bernazard.
It was all enough for many Met fans to wish for new team ownership back then.
That growing sentiment was fueled with reports of the Mets moving toward becoming a small market fish in the big pond of New York, as the team with the new stadium by Flushing Bay apparently saw its owner flush hundreds of millions of dollars away in Madoff’s madness.
And now, the sort of stuff you just can’t make up, not even if you were Minaya talking about Rubin.
Now, in all fairness, the context in which Wilpon disparaged the values or abilities of Mets like Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright should be noted. It’s not as if Wilpon offered those opinions to Toobin out of the blue (whether Dodger blue or otherwise).
Wilpon expressed such thoughts to Toobin while the two took in a Met game against the Houston Astros at Citi Field earlier this season.
In that setting, simply watching and talking baseball, even if discussing his own team, Wilpon can be somewhat exonerated than if it were in say, in a room somewhere, in a typical interview environment.
Yet, for a guy who built a fortune in real estate – enough to own a major league baseball team in New York – it would figure that Wilpon would know better.
When talking to a high profile reporter like Toobin for a feature piece in a magazine like the New Yorker, rule one in protecting your best assets is not to devalue them in any way.
Even Robert Nutting, the principal owner of the small market, perennially losing Pittsburgh Pirates knows that much.
Yet, while speaking with Toobin, Wilpon demonstrated once again that he just doesn’t get it when running the Mets.
Time will tell whether a current lawsuit in the Madoff case might ultimately force Wilpon to sell the Mets, or if the current financial state of the Mets (which Wilpon described to Sports Illustrated this week as a team that’s “bleeding cash” and “could lose $70 million this season) might eventually lead to new ownership in Queens. Or, Perhaps Wilpon, now 74, will get past all of this and continue to own a team that can again become financially stable and win.
For now though, how could such a successful businessman (outside of baseball) show all of his cards so openly?
Few would argue with Wilpon (as he told Toobin) that shortstop Jose Reyes might deserve a $140 million contract or that third baseman David Wright falls short of being a superstar. And, more would probably agree with Wilpon than disagree that in retrospect, Wilpon was misguided in overpaying for outfielder Carlos Beltran based on one historic postseason for Houston.
However, Wilpon is not exactly new to the art of negotiation and he’s certainly aware that he may be forced to trade any or even all of those players, and more. If that’s the case, why not build them up as much as you can?
Whether you’re selling real estate, cars, trinkets, or trying to get the most you possibly can for baseball players who you might not be able to afford to keep, you should always try to talk them up and overvalue them. Wilpon clearly knows that or he wouldn’t have ever been in a position to buy a professional baseball team in the first place.
And still, he just couldn’t help himself. Just like the Ebbets Field-styled rotunda replete with the focus on tributes to Jackie Robinson – very worthwhile, but for the Dodgers, not the Mets.
Ironically, both franchises – Wilpon’s initial favorite and the one he’s trying to save now – need to dig out of financial messes.
McCourt is desperately trying to keep the Dodgers as he struggles to make the team’s player payroll for the end of May while embroiled in a court fight with his ex-wife.
As a result, Major League Baseball has stepped in to help out one of its flagship franchises, something that some Met fans have expressed interest in seeing with their own team and which the New York media has already suggested should happen with the Mets.
A June 22nd hearing will have a superior court judge hear arguments on why a sale of the team should be ordered.
If it comes to that for McCourt and the Dodgers, many Met fans might say something like, “Go ahead and sell too, Fred. This is one time we don’t mind if you forget about the Mets and pay homage to your Dodgers.”